Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Write Until You Puke

This school year my district, as many across the country are, is in full adoption and implementation of the new Common Core Standards for ELA. We have taken a very systematic approach of breaking down the standards and fitting them into the context of our school district. The groups of teachers involved in this process are to be commended for the tireless work done to prepare for this year. Specifically, we have really overhauled our writing curriculum and how we teach writing to our students. Without going into much detail, we essentially have a writing program based on the new standards. This program breaks down the standards and has mini lessons, assessments and a whole host of resources for instructing students in the process of writing. To say it is intense would be an understatement and yet I recognize that everybody is implementing common core standards a little bit differently.

One of the things that I am already seeing in this new school year is my students are doing a whole lot more reading and writing. This is especially true in the area of informational literature. This is largely due to the new standards along with the level of intensity in content needing to be taught. Most people think this is a good thing and to an extent I agree. I am supremely confident my students will walk out of my classroom better readers and writers then when they walked in. Due to the sheer amount of reading and writing we are doing with our students there is little doubt this will happen.

However, I fear they will also learn to hate reading and writing when they walk out of my classroom. The level of intense instruction and sheer weight of the content standards is overwhelming to many teachers and surely is to students. We are being flooded with reading and writing on a level I have yet seen before. There are many sports analogies of young athletes pushed too hard and burn out and end up developing a hatred for the sport. I hope I am wrong, but I fear we might be doing the same thing to reading and writing in our new Common Core aligned classrooms. I hope at the end of the year I look back at this post and laugh, as my students will have made gains while still keeping a passion for reading and writing. Yet at this point in time I remain skeptical we might be pushing too hard and too fast.

As a parent, I realize the balance of pushing my kids while keeping their passions alive. If you have a child being pushed too hard by a parent, it is pretty standard they will often grow to resent whatever you are pushing them towards primarily due to the pressure applied by an adult. Is learning any different? I worry we are focused so much on pushing kids forward we are losing the balance and burning kids out. Can we find a middle ground where kids will progress with their learning while not hating learning in the process?

Friday, September 5, 2014

Because I Said So

Because I said so.

As a parent I will admit I have used this explanation for things I have asked my sons to do. It is the catchall phrase meaning, “don’t ask me why and just do what I told you to do.” The other day in class I was speaking with my students about an activity we were working on in. One of the students questioned me and asked why we would be doing it. I explained how the particular activity connected to a learning target as well as a skill that would help them throughout the year and beyond. The student was taken back a little and told me that he expected me to say, “Because I said so.”

This took me back a little and I asked the student why he would think I would say that. His reply was teachers always say that or some version of it when questioned about an activity or lesson. I went off script for the remainder of the class and discussed with students how wrong a phrase like that is. I impressed upon them to always ask me why we do anything in class. I am more than happy to explain why we do anything as well as the thought process behind my decisions to do it.

In addition to the classroom activities I create, I also share with students those things we are required to do. For example, district assessments, standardized testing, character programs, and the whole host of other things teachers are required to do with students. While I am not selling anyone out, I am certainly honest with my students about why we do these things and how they are used. Yes, there are times when I have to tell them we are doing this because someone told us we had to so let’s work together and get past it.

As a teacher, if you can’t explain why we are doing something, then should you be doing it? Kids have the right to understand why they are being asked to do things in school and we have the obligation to explain that to them.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

You Never Know

As another school year draws to a close I always like to look back and reflect on the year. For me this was an especially difficult and trying to school year. The students that I worked with although rewarding, were often challenging and testing me in many ways I had not been tested before. However, as I sit here I ask myself and wonder if I did enough. Did I do enough to help these kids be better then they were when they walked in my room in the fall?

Not so long ago I had a conversation with a good friend who said you can't help every kid so why do you try to help all of them. The reality is he is correct. If I look at the hundred or so students I teach every year, I can't help each and every single one. Some of the students I will not be able to connect with or help in any sort of significant way. Some of these kids come in with so much baggage and learned behavior from home environments or ingrained home cultures, that I don't stand a chance. If I'm being an optimist, I might say half of my kids are better off than they were when they walked in my room in the fall. But as I told my friend I don't know which half that's going to be or which have it is even after the school year is over.

I will never truly know the impact I have on a kid. That is why we as teachers can never give up on a kid. Or in this case, give up on a group of kids like a class that may be difficult or challenging. The time we invest is never wasted because we never know which kid it's going to help. In some cases we will never truly know our impact and it's because of that unknown that we have to do our best and try our hardest for every kid. If we give up on a kid or give up on a group, we don't know which ones we could have helped. As I told my friend, we have to try to help them all because we don't know which one it will click for.

As the school your draws to a close I made sure to reach out to each and every one of my students. I told them either verbally or in writing, in some cases, how much that meant to me. I thanked them for working and learning with me this year. I also set for some goals for them personally and academically and told them I will be checking up on them as they move into next year. While I may never know the impact I had the group of students I had this year, I feel like I gave everything I had and I hope it was enough for at least some of them.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Adults are the Problem

The other night I was having a conversation with a good friend of mine on twitter. Over the course of the conversation I made the comment “adults are always the problem”. I said it half jokingly and even made a side comment and promise to use it in my next presentation. However, as I think about the comment that was made somewhat in jest, I think there's a lot of truth to it. This is especially true when it comes to kids. Adults are definitely not always but very often the problem.

I reflect on some of the more difficult students I've taught over the course of my still relatively short career. I, and many of you, have worked with students that appear to have a complete lack of respect for authority. Students who do not value completing work either in or out of the classroom. We’ve all worked with those who treat their peers poorly and struggle to maintain a positive relationship.

In every single one of those situations I believe there is an adult to play. In most cases the adult is their own parent or guardian. Often they live in an environment were the adult has modeled behaviors they view as normal and that often clash within a school culture. The kid has no other choice because that's how they have had the world interpreted for them by the adults in their lives. We often blamed kids for the things they do at school. Yet, in a lot of cases behind the behavior is an adult and their actions and words.

The same could be said about teachers in some cases in school. Many student behaviors can be traced back to a comment an adult has made or the way in which an adult interacted with a student. A student not doing their work is often due to a poorly crafted assignment assigned by the adult. If there is a conflict in a class sometimes, that can often be traced back to the adult not creating and maintaining an environment or a culture of trust, honesty and most importantly safety.

To go a step further, when testing bombards students and the corporate reform movement frustrates the learning process, it is the adults who are screwing up kids’ natural desire to learn and be taught. Their curiosity knows no bounds. That is until an adult gets involved and complicates and burns that desire out. Adults are always the problem.

Yet having said all of that, adults are also almost always the solution. It is often the adults in a child's life such as a teacher that can help a child overcome a bad home life. It is often the adults in a child's life that can inspire and empower them to do great things beyond what they imagined for themselves. It is an adult that can help a child see past the bubble tests and standards to show them what is possible.

Yes, adults are always the problem. Nearly every single concern or issue or problem we have with a student can be very often if not always be traced back to an adult. However, in many cases when a child succeeds or goes on to do great things, it is often because of the actions or the words of an adult as well. As you look at your role as an adult and the work you do with kids, are you part of a child’s problem or are you part of their solution?

Monday, April 14, 2014


Recently, I was interviewed by a former student who is now studying to be a teacher. I have been interviewed by college students who are preparing to be teachers numerous times before. One of the questions I always get asked is what is my one piece of advice for a future teacher. In all of the times I've been asked that question my answer always comes back to the same thing.


As a teacher you're only going to be as good as your ability to adapt and evolve. This is largely done through the new, different and more innovative ideas and strategies you expose yourself to. I often share a short story from my own teaching experience. One day a few years ago during my study hall a student came up to my desk. This particular student was complaining about another teacher. In my years of teaching this has happened before and I typically will tell this student to sit down and instruct them that I will not have a conversation about any other teachers in the building. Personally, I think that's unprofessional and despite my feelings on a teacher I will not share those with a student.

However, this particular student was one I knew extremely well and I could tell he was frustrated. So, I simply asked the question of why he was frustrated with this teacher. He went on to tell me about why this particular teacher was a bad teacher and gave me some examples from the classroom of how they were not doing things to where he thought in his mind they should have been. I thought this over and I asked the young man a simple question. I asked, “Do you think [this teacher] is teaching the way they are because they don't know how to do it any other way.” Now this confused him and he wasn't sure what I was asking. I further elaborated to say, “Is it possible that [this teacher] is just teaching the way they have always taught. Or maybe they are teaching the way that they were taught and don't know any other way?”

This caused this young 11 year old boy to think for a second. His simple answer was, “Well [they] should come in and watch you teach.” Now I knew that was a loaded comment and I wasn't going to set my colleague up for failure like that or put myself in an uncomfortable position. However, the student and I had a great conversation about what makes a good teacher and a bad one. I even shared some of my early teaching experiences where I definitely was not a good teacher. I went on to explain to him the reason I got any better at teaching was because I found people that shared their ideas and what they were doing with me. It all came back to exposing myself to new ideas and new ways to do what I do in my classroom.

Going back to this advice for new teachers, the simple answer is exposure to as many ideas and different ways to teach. This includes not only the instruction but all of the nuances and dynamics that comprise the art, craft, and science of teaching. This can take the form of observing your fellow teachers in your building. It can be attending conferences and workshops to learn about new ideas and ways of thinking about teaching. It can be connecting with other teachers via social media or using technology to connect with other classrooms. There are so many resources available that connecting with other teachers can be done with a simple click of the mouse. There is no longer an excuse to be teaching in a silo and not exposing yourself to new ideas. New and old teachers alike, who are concerned with how to be a better teacher, simply need to be exposing themselves to better teaching.

On the other side of that coin, exposure to some bad teaching can be beneficial. It will help you discover what you believe is good and bad about teaching and the larger sample you have the more grounded your perception will be. The only way to truly get better is to be around and experience “better” and also to be constantly evolving what it means to be “good”.  My definition of what good teaching looks like is always changing as I learn more about teaching, learning, myself, my students and the people and experiences I have been exposed to.